Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 13
Stories
Beautiful Winter
by Eugie Foster
Hologram Bride: Part Two
by Jackie Gamber
Second String
by David A. Simons
Command Transfer
by Darren Eggett
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
Salvage
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
De-Fence
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Hologram Bride:  Part Two
Artwork by Julie Dillon
Hologram Bride: Part Two
    by Jackie Gamber

. . . continued from issue 12 . . .

I found the strength to run again, despite my struggling lungs. Dar'el had told me to run straight without veering, and I did. I hopped over fallen logs and climbed up and over craggy trunks, searching in the darkness for a way I didn't know and a hut I'd never seen before.

A glimmer of something caught my eye, then blinked out. I paused, panting, trying to decide if I'd imagined it. Then a breath of wind rustled low tree branches and through waving leaves I saw it again. Torchlight. In a rectangle shape, like a window. The hut!

I didn't hear anyone following me, but I didn't trust the silence. I lunged for the hut. I stumbled over something and landed on my hands and knees, right at the doorstep. The door swung open. A face like a pale honeydew melon peered down at me.

"You must be the bride," said the crone.

I got a strange feeling she was surprised, or maybe disappointed, to see me.

"Come, I'll make tea." She drew me to my feet, though she didn't look like she ought to be so strong.

She shuffled inside. Her dress was a robe, and it hung off her frame and puddled around her feet, looking made for someone twice her size. Maybe over time she'd shrunk inside it and hadn't noticed. Her spine was arched, her hands withered. Her frizzy hair was the color of butter. "You bleed," she said.

I looked down at my kneecap. A shallow gash oozed crimson down my shin. "It doesn't hurt."

"It will. Sit." She pointed to a chair, and I obeyed. She scuffled into a brightly lit corner and pulled a gingham blanket over a sculpture of twisted pipes. Then she opened a small trunk on a table.

I looked around the room. That's all it was, really; a single room with a cold fireplace, a bed, a small kitchen-like counter with cupboards and tools on the wall, and a table. It was no bigger than Dar'el's shed.

"I think the men have hurt Shandra," I said. "Can you help her?"

"How?" The woman looked over her shoulder at me while her hands busily gathered small tins.

"I don't know. Should we look for her?"

Knocking exploded on the door. The woman pointed a gnarled finger. "There she is now."

I bolted out of my chair and yanked open the door. Sure enough, there was Shandra. Blood on her cheek mixed with wet tears. "Shandra!" I hugged her. I couldn't help myself.

She whimpered and pulled back. I saw then that her shoulder was bleeding, too. "What did they do to you? How did you get away?" I urged her toward the chair I'd just vacated.

"I'm okay. I don't think they meant to hurt me, they were just so angry," said Shandra, sitting hard into the chair.

"Not angry," said the old woman. She hobbled toward a rain barrel sink and pumped water into a wooden mug.

"I couldn't understand what they were shouting. They were dragging me."

"If not angry, then what?" I asked, watching the woman carry the mug to Shandra. Shandra took it with shaking brown fingers, but just stared off toward the wall.

"Then they released you?" asked the woman.

"I heard Dar'el's voice. And Van'el. Then more shouting and tugging on me, and then no one was watching me. I found a lantern somehow. Funny . . . I don't remember picking one up."

"Why would they hurt her if they're not angry?" I asked.

"I realized I was near Karla's house, so I crept around back. I saw her go into the trees."

The woman frowned. "They didn't follow you?"

"Hey," I said, and rapped on the woman's arm with my knuckles.

"I am Nanayant Elt Dor'is. Not 'Hey'." She sniffed, and scuffled back toward her collection of tins.

"Ohhh, you're the Nanayant," said Shandra. "I should have guessed. But, why haven't we met you before now?"

"I don't like visitors." Dor'is smeared brown speckles into a white ointment, and then crooked a green, wrinkled finger at Shandra. Shandra stood slowly, set down her mug, and obeyed. "That scratch will scar. Your skin is so dark." She smeared the ointment over Shandra's cheek.

"Van'el likes my skin."

"Let me see your shoulder."

Shandra unlaced the ties of her cotton blouse and tugged the fabric down her arm to expose a jagged tear. She winced a little when Dor'is shoved more ointment into the wound, rough and quick. Then she pulled her blouse into place. "You should have been the first to bless us."

Dor'is waved away Shandra's words, then hobbled toward me and offered me the tin. After I took it, she continued past me toward the cupboards. "All the men of Arway bought you, all the men should get to share you."

I jumped to my feet. "You know about that?"

"Of course she does," said Shandra. "The Nanayant knows all decisions concerning her village."

"Bah. Don't make it sound so noble." Dor'is slid over calico fabric from a low cupboard to expose a Model III Repli-Chef. "You girls want Earl Gray or Darjeeling?"

Shandra and I exchanged looks.

"Darjeeling it is." Dor'is tapped the screen. Seconds later she opened the door of the white appliance and drew out a tray with three teacups. She scuffled over to set the tray on the table, took her cup, and blew across the hot surface. "I used to oversee the production of those, you know. For Alliance suppliers. And not just Repli-Chefs, but Steama-spanders and Inverseaffects, too. I've worked at a lot of interesting places."

"You haven't lived here all your life?" Shandra asked.

Dor'is tugged me out of the way of the chair. "Let an old woman sit, eh?" She lowered into the seat with a groan. "I've been here about six years now."

"But a Nanayant is supposed to be a matriarch born and raised in the village." Shandra said.

"So you read the brochure." Dor'is snorted. "Bureaucratic drivel. There haven't been matriarchs this side of the Walen'al River in generations."

"Who was the Nanayant before you?"

Dor'is sipped at her tea. "Wasn't one, far as I know. Old women die off out here in the wilderness all the time."

Looking at Dor'is's wrinkled face, I wondered how much older "old" was supposed to be.

"So why are you here?" asked Shandra, who had wandered her way toward the hearth and was crouching down to sit.

Dor'is set down her teacup. "Not that it's any of your business, but I was sacked."

I blinked. I looked at Shandra.

"Fired. Let go," Dor'is said. "And then banished to the outlands like some kind of criminal and left to die off."

"Then how did you make it to Arway?" Shandra asked.

"She means Arway," I said.

Dor'is stared at Shandra.

"She likes it here," I explained.

Then Dor'is stared at me. I shrugged.

"I'd have starved already if I hadn't smuggled my own Repli-Chef in a flour bag stuffed inside a fruit barrel," said Dor'is.

"Do the men know about that?"

Dor'is shook her head. "They know what they're told. They're almost as easy to manage as a factory of appliance robots. At least, they were."

"But you're the Nanayant. You can make them stop fighting." Shandra said.

"I stopped dealing with males' affdesfals a long time ago. I'm not going to start now."

I looked at Shandra. "The what?"

Shandra shrugged, and looked toward Dor'is.

"That isn't in the brochure," said the Nanayant. "Wouldn't do for earthlings to find out how dangerous the exchange program can be for your women, now would it?"

"Dangerous?" I asked, and looked at Shandra. She was watching Dor'is.

"Might put a damper on the plan. Or cease it altogether." She set down her empty teacup and retrieved one that had been meant for Shandra or me. I didn't want it, anyway. She rose out of the chair with a grunt and shuffled toward a window. "What you witnessed tonight wasn't anger, exactly."

"You said that before."

"It's more of a frenzy. A response to the influx of hormones induced by mating season."

I grimaced.

Shandra rolled her eyes. "Like testosterone. Earth males have the same thing."

Dor'is shook her head. "Like testosterone, but not the same thing. There's a powerful chemical that stimulates their insular cortex. Makes them aggressive. Possessive."

"Destructive?" I asked.

"That's a lot of 'ive's," said Shandra.

"Let a chemical like that eat at a male's brain long enough, makes them flare. That's affdesfals."

"That friend of Dar'el's attacked Karla tonight, before the whole group of them came after me," said Shandra.

Dor'is turned from the window to regard me. She gestured toward the hem of Dar'el's shirt against my thigh. "Were you wearing that?"

"No!" I tugged at the shirt, trying to cover more skin.

She turned back to the window. "The males respond to Reisan females coming into season -- we call it ripening -- when breasts develop and hips widen." She sipped at her tea. "She mates if she chooses. After some weeks, female hormones decrease, the season passes, and breasts and hips diminish again."

"Diminish?" I asked.

"Females return to who they are supposed to be. Until the next cycle."

"How long is it between cycles?" asked Shandra.

"What do you mean by 'supposed to be'?" I asked.

Dor'is watched the night sky through the window. "The cycles are months apart. Years, sometimes, if you're lucky." She paused, her face collecting shadows. "I wasn't so lucky."

"Lucky?" Shandra asked.

"What do you mean by 'supposed to be'?" I asked again.

Her eyes darkened. "Ripening confuses things. Makes a female lose sight of important things, the real things." She shook her head, glaring at the stars. "I'd worked so hard for so long, earning my way into an overseer's position at the capital. I knew what I wanted. I could think on my feet. React. Stay level-headed." She turned those darkened eyes over her shoulder toward me. "I was important, you know. Like so many other females. Smart. Analytical. I was using the brain I was meant to have."

I didn't respond. I was trying to figure out which brain she was using now.

"But hormones come whether you want them or not, don't they? Turning strong females into gibbering flirts. Turning gentle males into mindless beasts," she said. "You try denying the feelings your body is convinced you have!" She stabbed an accusing finger toward my face. "Feels like love. Feels like sacrificing everything you've ever wanted is the right thing. But it's just chemicals," she said, and then she rapped her index finger against her temple. "Chemicals."

At that, her glare faded, and she looked between Shandra and me. "Used to be, they'd let us have a choice. Government took that away a long time ago. It's all just trouble, the whole thing." Then she waved her teacup toward us. "And double the trouble, mixing a breed of earth females into our world who are always ripe."

"I knew this wasn't a good idea," I said.

Dor'is lowered her teacup. "You didn't want to come?"

I crossed my arms. "I just wanted to be a teacher."

"I argued, too."

"So the Arway men are experiencing this affdesfals because of Karla and me?" Shandra asked.

Dor'is pursed her lips and shook her head. "Karla got away, but you shouldn't have been allowed to escape. That leaves one conclusion, but I'm only guessing."

"Guessing?"

"That you are with child."

Shandra gasped. She pressed her hands to her belly. "You think I'm pregnant?"

"You're here, instead of being torn apart in the fat one's barn. Reisan males are sensitive to hormone signatures. Not consciously, of course."

"I think Dar'el is," I said. "I think he knew this might happen."

Dor'is snorted. "He knew. Why do you think he was chosen?"

"So it was your decision," I said.

She shrugged. "The men were told earth females could come, I tried to make the best of a bad situation. Dar'el has a faith that tempers him, and he could speak English. He's a smart one." She moved from the window and shuffled toward her little shelf of mysterious tins.

"You just said I should have been torn apart in Ra'nen's barn. How did you know we were there?" asked Shandra.

Dor'is set her teacup on the table. "Van'el is smart, too. And I had a good plan to control the initial hormonal response of the others."

"What plan?" I asked.

"I even concocted an elixir." She pulled the stopper on a small bottle and sniffed into it. "I can't imagine why it didn't work," she said, frowning at the container.

"Why what didn't work?" I asked, leaning forward to see if I could get a sniff of the bottle myself.

"Oh. Well, the elixir to impregnate you both as soon as possible," she said, without looking directly at me. "But it apparently hasn't worked in Dar'el's case."

Shandra coughed behind her hand.

I glared at her. She drew up her feet onto the bed, hugged her knees, and smiled at me.

I turned my head to find Dor'is watching me. She bunched up her already-wrinkled brow and looked between Shandra and me in confusion.

"Oh, for crying out loud," I said. "Dar'el and I haven't consummated yet, okay? Not that it's anyone's business."

"He didn't mention any physical problems," said Dor'is.

"Look," I said, and stood up. I tugged at the hem of Dar'el's shirt and stalked toward Dor'is. "I'm sure there's nothing wrong with Dar'el. I just didn't want to. Did it never dawn on anyone I might not want to?"

Dor'is's eyes flashed with a Reisan blink. "No."

I threw up my hands and groaned.

"Are you saying," asked Dor'is, ". . . that despite being ripe, you chose against mating?"

"What a romantic way of putting it," I said.

"Why don't you just bless Karla and Dar'el?" asked Shandra. "Won't that eliminate all this confusion?"

"What would that do?" I asked.

Shandra stood and walked toward me. "A Nanayant blessing marks a union as sacred. No other male would dare claim you then."

"That's so old-fashioned," said Dor'is.

"So are oil lanterns," I said.

"Tell me about it -- ah, Shandra . . ." Dor'is darted out her green hand to touch Shandra's arm.

Shandra was peering beneath the gingham blanket at twisting, turning pipes. "What's this?"

"Don't touch it." Dor'is's face hardened.

Shandra tugged more blanket away. "But what is it? Looks like an old still." She smiled. "You brewing up home-grown kick-a-poo juice?"

Dor'is pulled the fabric from Shandra's hands and covered the pipes back over. "Yes, and I don't exactly want the whole village to know or they'll be banging on my door at all hours wanting some."

"You don't like wine?"

"Allergic," said Dor'is. "Now can we change the subject?"

"Yes, excuse me," I said. "We were talking about our many husbands and how I don't plan on sleeping my way through them. I'm leaving for the docking station in the morning."

"You'll only make things worse," said Dor'is.

"The men can have their money back. I'm going home."

"Look," said Dor'is. "You can't just leave now."

I marched toward the door. "So stop me."

"Don't go out there, Karla." Dor'is shuffled to follow me, and moments later I felt something pressing hard to my spine.

"What, are you threatening me?" I twisted, trying to look at whatever she was poking at my back.

"Dor'is?" asked Shandra's frightened voice.

"I can't let you go out there," said Dor'is.

A sharp jolt shot up my spine and rattled my brain. I tried to cry out, but everything went black.

I tried to move. Pain stabbed through my hips and thighs. My mouth was dry, and when I tried to open my eyes, they felt glued shut. Something was itchy against my back.

"Karla?" Shandra's voice. "Are you awake?"

I groaned.

"Don't move right away. Dor'is said you'll ache some."

"That witch shot me."

"I know."

"I guess the Repli-Chef isn't the only thing she smuggled in her flour sack."

Shandra's hand touched my shoulder. "She said it was for your own good. That if the men saw you they'd hurt you."

"And this feels so much better." I rolled to my side, and managed to peel my eyes open. I blinked at a fuzzy Shandra outline. "Where are we?"

"The Nanayant shack. Dor'is must have left while I was sleeping."

"What time is it?"

"I don't know. I can't find a clock or a sundial or anything."

I sat up on Dor'is's bed. A rush of nausea made me lean forward.

"Go slow," said Shandra. "I'd give you something out of the Nanayant's tins, but I don't know enough about herbs."

"There's likely rat poison or brain-washing drugs, anyway. I don't trust anything she's said."

"Why would she lie?"

"I don't know, Shandra, but I can't figure out why she'd shoot me, either."

"Because she was worried --"

"About what the sex-crazed Reisans would do to me. Yeah, I got that." I pushed to my feet. My eyesight was de-fuzzing and I could feel my legs again. I scuffled toward the door.

"It's locked," said Shandra.

"Did you try a window?"

"There's just the one. It doesn't open."

I scowled. "Sure, I'm seeing all kinds of reasons to trust her."

"She just wants to keep us safe."

"Or keep us prisoner." I turned to find Shandra sitting on the bed, her hands wringing. I realized it might be best to keep my opinions to myself for now. "You want something to eat? I could whip up some repli-eggs."

"Maybe."

"If you really are going to be a mom, you should keep up your strength."

Shandra smiled. "All right."

I made my way to the cupboard Dor'is had exposed last night, searching for the appliance. I yanked over a swatch of calico fabric. There it was, in all its shining glory, making me homesick. "What a relief," I said. The only thing I've really perfected on Dar'el's cooking stove is pancakes."

"I miss hot chocolate," said Shandra.

I knelt in front of the Repli-Chef and poked at the screen. "I hate when they change the programming. I can't find eggs."

"Try poultry. I think they moved eggs from the dairy section on the model three last year."

"Yeah, there it is." Then my hand paused. A realization crawled up my spine like a spider and tickled at the base of my brain. "Last year?"

"Maybe it was two years. I don't remember."

I twisted around to stare at Shandra. "But not six years. Didn't Dor'is say she smuggled this thing into her flour sack six years ago?"

"Yes, I think so." Shandra stood. She wandered toward the shelf of tins and began opening them. Then she touched the blanket covering the still. "Do you think she lied?"

"She's lying about something." I couldn't think why she'd have reason to, but that tingly sensation at the back of my head hadn't gone away. I sat on the floor, trying to puzzle it out. "She must keep contact with someone outside the village, but if so, why lie about it?"

"I've been wondering something, too." She yanked the blanket off the pipes and scowled, holding up a dried, puffy pellet the size of a lima bean. "If she's allergic to wine made of seeds, how can she drink anything made from them? And why doesn't she just program it into the Repli-Chef?"

I stood up and brushed at my backside. "What are you saying?"

"I don't know," said Shandra. "But look at this."

I walked toward her to see what she was pointing at. Looked to me like a brown, oblong box with skinny snakes coming out of it. Speckled snakes that dove together into the ground. "What?"

"Wires that go from that still into that battery, then into the ground." She touched a smooth panel on the wall. "And I'll bet this is a charge controller. And that . . ." She pointed toward a tiny patch of black material at the corner of the ceiling. ". . . is a solar plate."

I shrugged helplessly. "You lost me."

"What's a forgotten old woman in a shack in the outlands doing with photovoltaic equipment for brewing something that is not seed liquor?"

I couldn't think of an explanation. "How do you know about photo-whatever stuff?"

"I'm an Ecological Science Tech. Though it doesn't take a scientist to see where our earth is going." She held up a box of digital syringes. "What are these?"

Those I recognized. "Dosage administrators. We used them at the orphanage for inoculations, antibiotics. Those look like a one-dose needle."

She set the box down. "Are the eggs burning?"

"I can replicook eggs without burning them!" I walked over and eyed the appliance again. "Besides, I haven't started them yet."

"Well, something's burning. Can't you smell it?"

I did smell it. Not like burned eggs, not even like smoke. More acrid. It stung the inside of my nose. "What is that?" I walked the room, sniffing and searching. At the fireplace, I found a fist-sized glass bulb leaking faint blue smog. "Some kind of firewood alternative?" I asked Shandra. But before she could answer, an explosion rocked the floor and knocked me flat. Heat billowed toward my face and chest, and I tried to roll over. My flesh stung all over like I was fighting off a swarm of bees.

I heard Shandra call my name. She tugged at my arms. The fireplace had become an orange wall of flame, and I stared at it while Shandra dragged me toward the door. "It's locked!" she said. She released me and ran past the fire to the kitchen window. She slammed an iron pot at the glass. She grabbed the chair and tried that. "It won't break!" Her voice was high and her face panicked.

I was trying to think through my own fear, but I could only stare in pain and confusion. The fire growled at the roof, then leapt out to swallow it. Orange flames turned yellow and crept across a ceiling beam toward me. Shandra called for me again.

At the sound of my name, I snapped aware. My hands grappled at the hinges of the door, trying to wrench out the nail, but it didn't budge. Shandra dropped to her knees beside me with a kitchen knife and pried at it. I peered up at the ceiling. The fire roiled directly over our heads.

Then a voice shouted through the door. "Amna tet!" Knuckles rapped hard on the wood. It sounded very much like the yellow-eyed sumo wrestler.

"We're here!" cried Shandra, and pounded back. "Eshua ay arwanen!"

"Trenet!" said the voice.

Shandra yanked at my shoulder. "Get back."

The door splintered. Green arms reached through, then a round face with yellow eyes. I shrank back, but Ra'nen's hand found my shirt collar and pulled. I scraped through the broken door and flopped over the man's shoulder. With a grunt, he tugged at Shandra, and she got tossed over his other shoulder.

I thought I'd be relieved to be free of the fire, but I was Ra'nen's captive. I seriously considered jumping back in. Unfortunately, I didn't have the strength. My face sizzled, my arms ached, and I was too tired to fight.

"Don't be scared," whispered Shandra.

Too late, I thought, as I felt my eyes flutter closed.

I heard voices like people were speaking gibberish through an air bubble. Someone pressed something cold to my face. I felt like I'd been through this before, but couldn't remember quite what it was I'd been through.

I opened my eyes to find Ra'nen staring down at me. I sat up fast, and nearly cracked my forehead against his nose. A cold cloth dropped to my lap.

"Where am I?" I asked. Yellow light leaked through wall slats. Hay dust floated like tiny fairies through the brightness. Near the ceiling, I heard a bird flutter from a corner roost. Ra'nen's barn.

Shandra offered me a cup of water, her face smudged with soot. "Ra'nen says the shack is destroyed. It's still smoking."

"Where's Dar'el?" I glared at Ra'nen. "What did you do to him?"

Just then the barn door roared open and pounding feet rumbled over the floor. "Shandra!" I heard Van'el say. Shandra hopped to her feet. Van'el's hands stretched out from a crowd of green arms and hugged her tightly.

Reisan men stood around the pair, voices strained, words spilling over others' words. Van'el murmured into Shandra's ear, and she turned to look at me, her eyes soft and rimmed with pity.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "Where's Dar'el? What's going on?"

Ra'nen laid his plump hand on my knee.

"Don't even think about it," I snarled. He didn't understand my words, but he must have read my face. He withdrew his hand.

"Karla, no one has seen Dar'el since last night." Shandra knelt at my side. "The men have been looking for him. He hasn't been home."

"They've been looking for him?" I wiggled around, trying to get to my knees. "They're the ones who ran him off! Came to our house all pumped up on affdesfals, trying to hurt him!" I finally got to my feet and balled my fists.

Van'el took my shoulders. "Dar'el was not hurt. He fought hard, his eyes as full of affdesfals as the others. He lost himself, almost killed Esh'al and Car'lis."

"What?"

He sighed. "The others came to their senses. Dar'el did not. Even I ran. I was afraid of him."

"You're crazy. He wouldn't do that." I looked down to Ra'nen, over to Shandra, and then to the group of men who stood silently and watched us. For the first time I noticed small bandages around the tips of ears, tied to shoulders, and clinging to various noses. "This place is crazy. Everyone's lying; everyone's trying to hurt each other. The Nanayant shot me! And she tried to burn Shandra and me in her shack!"

Van'el looked down at Ra'nen. The giant Reisan pushed to his feet and lumbered toward me. "Saw no Nanayant. Only Dar'el."

"What are you saying?"

"Saw only Dar'el."

Shandra came beside me. "Van'el, you don't think Dar'el started that fire, do you?"

"He couldn't have," I said. "It started inside. Inside. The glass bulb exploded. Look at me." I stuck out my arms, the sleeves of Dar'el's shirt pinpricked with tiny holes.

"Maybe he came in while we were sleeping," said Shandra.

"The door was locked!"

"Maybe he locked it afterward."

I stared at Shandra. "Dar'el didn't shoot me in the back and lock me in. He didn't lie about the Repli-Chef."

"Repli-Chef?" asked Van'el.

I pressed my fingertips to my aching eyes. "Dor'is told us she smuggled a Repli-Chef in a flour sack six years ago when she came here, but the model is too new to be six years old."

Van'el raised his brows to Shandra. "What does that mean?"

Shandra shrugged. "I'm not sure, but it's not the only thing she lied about. And when she was explaining affdesfals to us, she mentioned me being attacked in this barn, even though I didn't mention where."

"But why would the Nanayant want to hurt you?"

"Why would Dar'el?" I asked, lowering my hands to look into Van'el's black eyes.

"Not to share human girl," grumbled Ra'nen. He gripped my hips and pulled me back against himself. "Aya may varna turret tay."

I wobbled against his gelatinous belly. "If you don't stop grabbing me, I'll varna your turret tay, all right." I stomped onto the arch of his foot.

He howled and gave me a push.

The group of men behind him shifted feet and exchanged looks. One of them nodded at Van'el, as though urging him to speak. Shandra saw it, too, because she touched Van'el's arm. "What is it?"

"We do not know what it means," he said. "But we have been speaking of things since last night, and . . . "

"What?" I asked, too irritated to be patient.

"It seems the Nanayant told each of the others in secret that you both were to be theirs during the barn celebration." Van'el swallowed tightly.

"What?" I asked again, able only to echo a single syllable.

"But," Shandra flustered. "But, she . . . she said she was trying to protect us from affdesfals! She even gave you and Dar'el an elixir to help us get pregnant, to buy us some time!"

"Well, she lied again," I said. "What a surprise." I pushed through the men and headed for the door, so much anger churning inside my stomach it was making me ill.

"There must be some mistake," said Shandra.

I stopped, and whirled to face her. "Isn't it obvious? She said she didn't want us here, and that showing how dangerous the exchange could be might stop the program altogether. Think about it, Shandra."

"You mean, you think she . . . did it on purpose?"

I looked at Van'el, who wasn't arguing. "Hoping for affdesfals," I said. "Encouraging it. Which probably has a lot more to do with that elixir she gave you than anything to protect Shandra and me."

Van'el's gaze tightened with pain, and he looked downward. "I drank the medicine. I believed her."

"Of course you did," said Shandra. She took his hand and kissed his knuckles. "We all did."

"Speak for yourself," I said. I turned and kicked open the door. "I'm going to the processing station to get the money back. Then I'm going home." I stalked out of the barn and toward Dar'el's house to change into my dress

When I reached the front door, I paused. The cascading pink flowers rustled against the roof, catching my attention. The breeze carried their scent to me. Vanilla spice. I thought of Mama Iris then, and the tea she used to brew while we talked of teaching, or children, or dreams. But, did we talk of dreams? I was certain we had. I just couldn't recall whatever they'd been.

No matter. I would be back on earth soon, and I would think of new ones.

I made my way through the house to the bedroom. I caught my reflection as I passed a mirror, and sucked in a breath. I had twigs in my hair. Tiny burn spatters dotted my forehead and nose, and were beginning to scab. The collar of Dar'el's shirt was torn off, and a scrape across my collarbone was crispy with dried blood. Unbelievable. This place was trying to kill me, and I'd only been here a few days.

I turned my back to the mirror and pulled at the shirt buttons. I hadn't realized my fingers were shaking until I tried to make them work. Finally the filthy cloth dropped to the floor. I stepped into my yellow dress, smoothed it up my arms, and then struggled with the tiny fasteners at my throat.

I heard a muffled thump. The sound came through the open window, so I peered outside. The door of the shed was partially open. I heard another noise like something being dragged. Definitely inside the shed. I ducked through the window and crept toward the sound.

I pulled open the shed door. Sunlight cascaded in around me and illuminated a green figure hunched on the floor in a corner, with his hands gripped into his dark green dreadlocks.

"Dar'el?"

He looked up quickly. "Go, Karla. Go away."

"Are you all right?"

"No. I am not safe, please go."

I watched him, thinking I should leave, but unable to.

"Do not come closer. I am begging you," he said, his voice strained.

"I'm not afraid." I was surprised to realize I meant it. I knelt beside him. "Van'el said you lost your temper last night."

He pressed his elbows to his raised knees and touched the heels of his hands to his forehead. He turned away from me.

"It wasn't your fault," I said.

He shook his head. "I am an animal. I am no better than the rest."

"You're no animal."

He turned his face toward mine. "I thought I could control it. I thought I was stronger." He looked down toward his hands. "But I am weak. I let it take my mind."

"It's built into you, Dar'el. You're Reisan. You can't expect to fight your very nature."

"Yes I can. I am more than my nature!" He slapped his hand to the floor, but then hissed out a breath of pain.

"Are you hurt?" I took his hand and turned it. His palm was dark and blistered. "Did you burn yourself?"

He yanked his hand away from me.

"You need to tend to that. And don't let the others see it. They already suspect you started the fire."

He looked at my face again. His expression slowly clouded.

"But you didn't," I said, eyeing him.

He shook his head. "I do not remember. God help me, Karla, but I do not remember."

"How can you not?"

He continued to shake his head. "It took my mind. I was enraged, and I wanted to protect you. I remember the others afraid of me. And I wanted to find you, but I could not have you, and I was trying to think through a fog of such anger." He began trembling. I touched his shoulder.

"You wouldn't hurt me, Dar'el. No matter how angry."

"But I was there. I do remember fire, and I . . . I was searching."

"You did say you wanted to protect me."

I could tell he didn't believe me. For a minute, I actually doubted too, but it didn't last. I smiled, and cupped his face in my hands. "I trust you."

Tears welled in his blue eyes. He placed his hands over mine and smiled, very faintly. The heat of his burned palms invaded my own skin, and I wondered how he was managing the pain. "Will you show me how to tend to your burns?" I asked.

He nodded. His gaze was soft, and it slowly settled onto my mouth.

I drew in my bottom lip, very aware he was staring at me. I grew warmer, and realized the heat wasn't coming from his palms, but from his eyes. Then he leaned toward me, slowly. I sensed his kiss in the air between us.

I knelt mutely in place, caught between retreat and surrender. Would a kiss make it easier for me to leave, or harder? There was only one way to know. I closed my eyes and let it come.

But it didn't. Moments later, I reopened my eyes to find his face inches from mine, his jaw tightly clenched. Then he turned his head, released my hands, and pushed to stand.

"Dar'el?"

"I am taking you to the processing station."

"Right now?" I stood and brushed wood chips away from my knees.

"As soon as you are ready."

"What about your hands?"

"I will be fine." He wasn't looking at me as he made his way to the door. "I will not risk you any longer. Gather your things and meet me out front. I will drive the carriage myself." He closed the shed door behind himself.

I followed him out, but he was gone. I went back through the bedroom window to find my things as he told me, but only stood beside the bed, staring around the room. Nothing here belonged to me. Except for the reshka he gave me, which was laying on the chair. I picked it up, hugged it to my chest, and cast a final look to the room.

Outside, the sky had turned milky white and smelled of rain. The carriage was waiting at the road, with Dar'el in the driving seat. "I would have liked to tell Shandra goodbye," I said, as I hurried toward him.

"You wish to take the time?" he asked. The burgundy horse-beast whinnied.

I did wish, but got the distinct impression he didn't. I climbed the steps of the carriage and sat down inside, feeling I was a nuisance to be secretly rid of. In my daydreams of leaving Arway and Reisas, I hadn't imagined the part where Dar'el would be so eager to see me off.

The journey dragged on. Wet blobs of rainfall began to slap against the carriage window. By the time we pulled into place outside the processing center, the sky was alabaster pale and quietly rumbling.

The carriage door opened, held by Dar'el, whose dreadlocks dripped with water. His shirt was so soggy it had become transparent. "Think it'll rain?" I asked, in the hopes of lightening things. It didn't.

Dar'el hadn't spoken by the time we stepped inside. Not even by the time we'd reached the outer office. When he did talk, it was to the scrawny male receptionist behind a lacquered half-wall. "Ragin Dar'el Karla esh tuant tet eskatay."

The receptionist looked up. When he spotted me, his eyes slowly rose to stare at my face, and then my hair. His expression drew Dar'el's eyes to me, too.

Dar'el softened, regarding me. He removed a small twig from above my ear, and smoothed my hair into place. He shook his head, and opened his mouth to speak, but then a door behind the desk whispered open to reveal a hallway, and he looked away. "I will explain things," said Dar'el. "Wait here for me."

He stepped into the hallway without looking back. I watched him leave a trail of wet boot prints on the glistening floor and wondered if anyone would mind if I cried a little.

Then I heard voices coming from another door to my left. I couldn't understand the words, but one of the speakers had a shriveled tone that seemed familiar. I glanced at the receptionist, who was talking into some kind of mouthpiece affixed to his chin. So I tiptoed toward that door.

I listened for a moment, and wished I'd taken the time to learn some basics of their language. I turned the knob and swung open the door just a little to peer through the crack. All I could see was a stocky male with a shrubbery for hair. He waved his hand toward the other babbling voice, and produced a dosage administrator from an inside pocket of his suit. A gnarled hand snatched at it.

"Ragin Karla?" asked a voice behind me. I turned to find the receptionist with his thin arms crossed, eyeing me. He stepped toward me, reached around my arm for the door handle, and pulled the thing closed.

"Whose office is this?" I asked.

He narrowed his eyes.

"Nanayant Elt Dor'is?"

"Please take seat," he said, sweeping his arm toward the lobby.

"I need to speak with someone in charge about the Arway Nanayant," I said.

Then I felt the door handle turn against my back, and heard a click. The wood drew back, and I caught sight of a dark eye staring from a wrinkled, honeydew melon face. It was Dor'is!

She gasped, and the door slammed shut. Before I could react, I heard the lock twist. "I know what you did, Dor'is!" I said, just in case she thought she could get away with it. I grabbed the receptionist's scrawny arms. "Does that office have a window?"

He made no sound, only gaped his mouth and widened his eyes.

"Window?" I repeated. Still nothing. "Never mind." I ran toward the main doors to find out myself. I pushed them open and stumbled out into daylight that only days ago had blinded me.

My first step was into a puddle of rainwater that splashed my dress. I turned the corner, and spotted Dor'is extruding, legs-first, through the side of the cement building.

"Oh, no, you don't!" I hollered. I ran across the patchy lawn toward the window, mud spraying with each step. I felt it hit my cheeks. I tasted it on my lips. When I got close enough to reach her, she was out the window and trying to escape, all hobble and hunchback. I tackled her.

There was a feeble cry from someone through the window. I heard footfalls behind me -- several pairs of feet -- and then Dar'el's shout. "Karla!"

"Help me, Dar'el," I said. Dor'is was struggling beneath me, less of a weakling than I'd guessed.

"Why are you on the Nanayant?" he asked when he got close enough. He tugged me off her, but I held tight, yanking at the shoulders of her voluminous and muddy robe. She came to her feet, too, pulling out of the mud with a slurp.

"Don't let her get away, Dar'el, she tried to kill Shandra and me!"

"Ragin Karla?" asked another Reisan who swept in behind Dar'el. Something about the way this one held his shoulders made him tower over us all, even Dar'el, though when I looked closely, he wasn't really taller than anyone.

"Installation Director Arness," explained Dar'el.

I released Dor'is. I straightened a little and tried to smooth my hair, but when gray sludge plopped onto my shoulder from my fingers, I figured I still looked pretty disastrous. "Dor'is was trying to escape," I explained.

"Escape?" asked the director.

Dor'is pointed at me. "This human attacked me without reason."

"You were climbing out a window!"

"And for this I deserve to be ambushed?"

"Please calm down," said the director, holding up his hand. "And Elt Vik'ay, I see you there in the window, please come out."

The shape in the window shifted and emerged, becoming the young man with bushy hair I'd seen in the office. He gingerly stepped out onto the wet ground and then stared at me with round, green eyes. And he blinked. A real blink, with eyelids.

"Now, someone explain to me what is going on." The director looked at Dar'el, but Dar'el just looked at me.

"I . . . ah . . ." I looked back at the youth, distracted by his eyes. "Who . . .?"

"Elt Vik'ay," said the director. "Immigration assistant."

When I glanced back at the director, I realized by his pursed lips he was waiting on me. In fact, everyone was looking at me. "Dor'is started a fire in her cabin," I began. "She locked me and Shandra inside and set off something to explode."

"Nonsense," said Dor'is, and spun to walk away.

Dar'el's clutched the woman's shoulder. "Just a minute."

Dor'is snorted. "You started that fire, Dar'el. You knew the women were in my shack. I tried to stop you, but you were crazy with affdesfals. You struck me and I was helpless to stop you. Look at his hands," she said, jutting out her chin toward the director. "Ask him how he burned himself."

"Dar'el wouldn't hurt me," I said, my fists balling. I was considering striking her myself, but the receptionist was making his way toward us with a Reisan in a maroon uniform. We were apparently drawing a crowd.

"One of your townspeople burned your shack with two women inside, and you decided it wasn't worth reporting?" asked the director.

Dor'is narrowed her dark eyes. "I was here to do just that."

"That's not all she did," I said. I stepped forward. "She set up Shandra and me to be attacked by the Arway men. I think she was trying to get us hurt because she doesn't like the exchange program."

"What do you mean she 'set you up?'" asked Dar'el.

I lowered my voice and leaned toward him. "Last night, in the barn. The others said she'd told them each secretly it was supposed to be their turn with us."

"Olai shay," he said, and glared at her. Then he pushed her toward the director. "I believe there is cause for investigation," he said. "If Karla says Dor'is tried to hurt her, it is the truth."

"Ridiculous!" Dor'is struggled to pull loose from Dar'el's grip. "She's a hormonal earth outcast. She's the one who wants to sabotage the program."

"And yet you were the one who informed the men of Arway they were to share the two earth females, were you not?" asked the director.

Dor'is stopped struggling. She met the director's eyes, but she seemed smaller. "I felt it was the best solution at --"

"Despite clear guidelines. Despite knowing the consequences."

"Oh, what is the big deal? It's not as though this is about free choice, is it?" Dor'is waved her hand toward me. "She was brought here to reproduce. Your bureaucratic guidelines and tasteful manners can't conceal that this exchange program is just cattle-driving."

I was startled to discover Dor'is and I agreed on something. I almost said so, but she kept talking.

"What difference does it make to you who she mates with? What difference does it make to her? It's what she's made for, isn't it?" She waved her hand at me again, and her face curled inward. "Look at her. It's disgusting."

I was ready to slug her this time, despite the onlookers. I made a move toward her, but Dar'el put his hand on my shoulder.

"Fine," said Dor'is. "Maybe I nudged it along a little, but what happened was inevitable. Because you won't leave well enough alone. Meddling in the affairs of my body, taking away my choices. Now you're meddling again with Earthlings." She pulled back her shoulders, and her stooped back creaked when she tried to straighten. "Hasn't it dawned on anyone that maybe we're all trying just a little too hard?"

"Too hard?" asked the director.

"Maybe Reisas and Earth are two civilizations whose time has come. We should fade out with dignity, not with all this scrabbling to create a whole new creature that was obviously never intended to exist."

The young Reisan sucked in a sharp breath. "Ayantamel!" He touched his fingers to his mouth.

Dor'is startled. "Vik'ay, esta tu ah…"

"What did she say?" I asked Dar'el. "What's Ayantamel?"

"Grandmother," said Dar'el.

"Speak in English, please," said the director. "Both of you."

"Is that what you really think of me, Grandmother?" asked the Reisan. I could see moisture in his green eyes.

Dor'is shrank inside her robe, looking fragile and tired. "I didn't mean you, Vik'ay."

"Yes, you did." He stalked toward Dor'is. "I think you've meant all along for me to never have children." Then he turned to face the director, his boots squishy on the gray mud. "But I want to have children. I do. I just . . . I let her talk me into . . ."

The director put a hand on the young man's shoulder. "Into what?"

"Shut up, Vik'ay," said Dor'is.

The young man looked toward his muddy boots. Then he turned and reached into Dor'is's robes. Dor'is batted at his hands, but he withdrew a small dosage administrator and offered it toward the director.

The director took in a sharp breath this time. Dar'el's eyes narrowed.

"Is this . . .?" asked the director. He squeezed a drop of pink liquid onto his fingertip and dabbed it to his tongue. Then he looked at Dor'is. "Trestakaya." He clenched his teeth. He looked at the uniformed officer and nodded toward Dor'is. "Lock her in the recovery room until she can be properly transported."

"Nanayant Elt Dor'is, you are under arrest for the attempted murder of Ragin Karla and Baren Shandra," said Dar'el, coming from behind me to grasp the old woman's arms. "And for possession of trestakaya contraband."

"This is crazy! You can't arrest me!" Dor'is struggled, and Dar'el nearly lifted her off her feet to pass her to the uniformed officer. She continued to wrestle and yell, lapsing into Reisan. For such a wiry little shrew, she really gave the uniform trouble. Vik'ay, on the other hand, lumbered off quietly behind.

"Please cooperate, Vik'ay, and I will see to it you are handled gently," said the director.

"You will have to tell me everything that happened in that cabin, Karla," said Dar'el. "What was said, what was seen. Shandra, too. A full statement."

"Statement?" I asked.

"We will need to seal off the remains of the shack," he told the director. "The brewing system mentioned by Baren Shandra must be how Dor'is was manufacturing it."

"So a fire could have a double purpose. To destroy whatever evidence was inside, and to remove those who had seen it."

"All during the confusion of affdesfals, so we would not be able to recall details afterward. Nearly perfect," said Dar'el.

"Maybe you two would be more impressed if I'd actually died."

Dar'el looked at me, his blue eyes wide. "Karla, I did not mean --"

"Well, what did you mean? When did you talk to Shandra? And why do you suddenly sound like a policeman?"

"Ragin Dar'el was a police officer in Mau'ana, our capital, before he was wounded," said the director. "He volunteered for a rural resettlement eight years ago."

He shook his head. "I came to Arway to get away from violence." Then he stepped toward the director and touched the man's elbow to guide him along the building. "We should get that evidence to safety."

"It is fortuitous you were a witness." The director stepped across the mud without so much as dirtying the tips of his cloth shoes. He held the dosage administrator with two fingertips, as though it contained Black Death.

I fell in behind them, my own feet sinking so deeply into muck I strained with every step. "What evidence? What is Trestakay?"

"Trestakaya," the director corrected. "It is a synthetic hormone that suppresses the ripening of female Reisans. The chemical has been banned for many years, ever since we realized its prolonged use had affected following generations, making them unable to reproduce."

"You mean that's why your people are dying out with no babies to replace them?" I asked. "Because of a drug?"

"A synthetic hormone," he said. He paused and looked over his shoulder at me. "Reisas has a complicated past, Ragin Karla. Trestakaya is an unfortunate product of that." He regarded me for a long moment, and then faced forward and continued walking toward the building's main doors. "I have no experience with this sort of illegal activity, Dar'el, I will need your advice as to proceedings."

"There will be an investigation as to whether she was manufacturing it for personal use or whether she and her granddaughter were trafficking."

"Granddaughter?" I asked.

"Elt Vik'ay." The director nodded toward the doors where the rabble had disappeared inside.

I blinked. I'd thought Vik'ay was a male.

"Your wife will cooperate with our legalities?" asked the director, pausing again. One hand rested on the carved handle of the main door, one hand cradled the dosage administrator.

Wife. "No one told me I was supposed to be a wife to all those men," I said, remembering again. Getting angry again.

"Ah, yes . . . about that." The director removed his hand from the door and faced me. "A grievous misunderstanding. And we are already working to make amends. Your return passage to Earth will be at no expense to you, or to the men of Arway."

"What about bringing more women? Ones who really want to come?" I asked.

The director smiled thinly. "That would be an expensive prospect."

"As costly as having an illegal trestakaya plant operating under your very nose in Arway, where the venerated Nanayant attempted to slaughter the first two women of the union program within days of their arrival?"

His jaw clenched. He cleared his throat. "Yes, well. I'm sure something can be arranged."

Then the main door opened, and Shandra's smiling face peeked out. "Don't forget the blessing," she said.

"Shandra!"

"Shall we join them in the lobby?" asked the director, sweeping his hand toward the door. I watched that hand, and the graceful way his fingers met the air. Then it dawned on me. He was a female!

How many females had I'd come across without recognizing them? I glanced toward Dar'el. Could Reisan males tell the difference? Or did the hormones confuse them, too?

"Isn't it exciting?" squealed Shandra, yanking me through the door and pulling me into a tight hug. Van'el stood behind her, his green hand on her shoulder. The director brushed past us, speaking quietly to Dar'el. They both continued into the lobby.

I returned Shandra's hug. "I thought I wasn't going to be able to say goodbye."

She released me. She looked over her shoulder at Dar'el, then back to me. "You mean you're still leaving?"

Well, wasn't I?

"Didn't they tell you?" asked Shandra. "They've made me interim Nanayant." She leaned in to whisper in my ear. "I really put my foot down. You would have been proud of me."

"That's great," I said.

"I know! And as my first official act I'm going to bless you two in front of the whole village."

"You don't have to do that," I said. "I won't be here long enough to need it."

"Actually," said Van'el. "We have been told the next passage to Earth is planned in three months."

"Three months?" I blinked. "Three months?"

"Although, I am not certain how the legal proceedings will affect this. You may be asked to stay longer."

I must have looked faint, because Van'el braced his arm around my back. "But Dar'el has asked us to provide our home for you in the meantime. We are happy to, of course."

"Unless you'd rather stay with Dar'el," said Shandra, smiling faintly, her brows suggestively arched.

I looked toward the man who was my husband. He continued to speak with the director. He held open a brown envelope, and when the director carefully slid the dosage administrator inside, Dar'el folded the flap and wrapped string around the entire thing. Then he pointed toward the receptionist and other office personnel, and gave them orders I didn't understand. I watched him for a few minutes, but he never looked to find me.

"No," I said, and wearily turned for the door. "I'll go with you."

Shandra exchanged a look with Van'el. I could feel her disappointment, but she just nodded. "First thing we'll do is get you a bath." She took my hand and led me toward the doors. "It'll make you feel better."

"Sounds great," I said, knowing I needed one; knowing she was right about my outsides. But I was pretty sure it wasn't going to make me feel any better on the inside.

I knelt in Shandra's garden, my shins cradled by soft loam. The zrrt-za of green-black beetles and the whistling report of the pastel-feathered birds that hunted them had become a familiar morning opus. I'd learned this patch of ground. I'd cleared weeds and old leaves, had made room for foliage to stretch and breathe, had watched time pass in the unfolding of buds into frumpy petals.

I counted petals now. On the daisy-like flower in front of me, only one had fallen. When they all dropped, it would be nearly time to shuttle home.

Home. The word had lost its meaning.

"This garden likes you better than it does me," said Shandra, crossing the yard toward me, calico fabric folded over one arm, and a parchment note in her hand. "I could never tell the difference between flowers and weeds. I think I kept pulling the wrong ones."

I smiled. "They do look the same at first."

She held up the parchment. "We've been summoned again. Next week."

I looked up and shielded the sun with my hand. "Again? What for?"

She parted the note at the fold with her thumb and read. "A bureau deciding about Dor'is's mental state."

"What's to decide? She's crazy."

Shandra smiled. "Well, true. But maybe it's the trestakaya. Van'el told me one of the long-term effects of the drug --"

"Synthetic hormone," I said, waving my finger, grinning and scolding at the same time.

"Right. Synthetic hormone. I guess it causes a kind of aggression similar to affdesfals." She stepped into the garden, walking cautiously between rows of tidy foliage.

I didn't find that hard to believe. "But Dor'is doesn't need any help being aggressive, I'm sure of that. And I'll be happy to tell the bureau."

"You're probably right." She paused near me, her bare toes the same color as the garden dirt. "Her family is likely to say the same thing. She and her son had a falling out when he married a human, but they weren't very close even before that."

I pushed to my feet. "Have you heard what's going to happen to Vik'ay?"

"Not officially, but Dar'el says they won't charge her with anything. She's cooperating. Plus . . ." She smiled. "Either Dor'is's trestakaya was a mild version of the original, or it wasn't having the same effect on Vik'ay's blended DNA. She might as well have been feeding Vik'ay cough syrup."

I laughed. "I would have liked to see Dor'is's reaction to that news."

"Me too."

"So maybe human DNA really will be an answer for Riesas," I said.

She drew in a deep breath, and the calico fabric over her arm fluttered as she pressed her hand to her belly. Her dark eyes radiated, and I could feel the warmth of her smile even beneath the midday sun. "I'd like to think I'm an answer. And that my child will be."

I regarded her, wondering if I should be envious of her contentment. All I could feel was happiness for her. "You're going to be a great mom."

"So are you, someday."

I hadn't thought of myself that way before. Considering it startled me. I awkwardly stabbed my finger toward the fabric on her arm. "What's that you have?"

"A dress. For you." She held it up, letting the skirt of it touch the flower petals. The pink of the pattern was an exact match.

"From Dar'el?" He'd been sending a dress a week for the last several weeks.

"He likes taking care of you, I think," she said. She laid the dress against my hands, and I accepted it. "He misses you, Karla."

"He's said that?"

"He doesn't have to." She bent and touched the face of a daisy with her brown forefinger. "Just like you never say how much you miss him, but you do."

I touched my left earlobe with my free hand. I'd wrenched out the metal clasp a while ago, but an irritated scab remained, and it stung. "I miss Mama Iris, too, but I don't exactly want to be her wife."

She laughed, and tugged at the flower's stem. I moved to stop her, but the stem snapped. I watched her slide the daisy -- my daisy -- behind her ear. "So what do you want?"

I held up the dress to examine it. I had five others, all similar in style, with rounded collars and delicate buttons near the neck. "I don't know," I said, even though I'd been pondering that question on my own for a long time.

"Karla?" I recognized Dar'el's voice immediately, and lowered the dress to discover him standing in Shandra's doorway. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt, like the last time I'd seen him, and it lit the blue of his oval eyes. His hands were clasped around a small box.

Shandra was right. I missed him.

"Oh, I need to check on the . . ." Shandra scuffled through the garden row and toward the door. ". . . something in the kitchen." She glanced over her shoulder at me, briefly, before ducking behind Dar'el and disappearing.

He was regarding my face. When I realized his eyes were on me, I took a step toward him. "I like this new dress you've given me."

He smiled. "Do you? The pink pattern made me think of you."

"Yes, it's very pretty. Thank you."

"Your welcome."

I returned his smile. And then I folded the dress and laid it over my arm, because I'd run out of things to say.

His smile faded, and he stepped out of the doorway. "I came to tell you I've beenoffered a job in the city. In Mau'ana."

"A job?"

"I would be reinstated as a police officer. Since I have been working on your case, I have made contact again with several former colleagues."

"I see." I meant to tell him congratulations, but I couldn't bring myself to say it. "So you're leaving Arway?"

"Yes. I . . . thought it might . . . that you would wish that." He looked toward his hands, and the box within them. "I have amended the paperwork so the home here is yours."

"You're giving me your house?"

"And I will arrange things so you will not go without." I opened my mouth to reply, but he held up his hand. "I do not wish for you to return to Earth and its sickness. If my leaving will make you stay, I will provide for you from Mau'ana."

I was struck silent. I tried to sort through my thoughts and feelings, searching for a reply. The best I could manage was, "Why?"

"You are my wife," he said, his words soft. "It is the least I can do."

"Do you mean . . . it is the least you can do for me? Or the most?" I tried smiling.

He did smile, very faintly. Then he stepped toward me, his gaze steady on my face. "I could do more."

I believed him. The thought made my knees weaken. In that moment, I knew if he tried to kiss me, I wouldn't resist.

He only took my hand. He pushed calico fabric away from my palm and set the small box onto it. He didn't speak another word; he only stared into my eyes. Then he eased back, and turned.

I watched him walk away until he disappeared around the side of Shandra's house. Then, with a trembling hand, I ran my fingers over the small box. It was barely larger than a walnut, the wood dark and smooth. Tiny leaves cascaded from the upper left corner, across the front, and faded at the bottom right corner. They looked so real, I had to touch them again.

Shandra peered at me through the window by the door. Then she reappeared in the doorway, and gripped her skirt with her hands to hurry toward me. "Well? What happened? What did he say?"

"He gave me something," I said, feeling emotion in the back of my throat, tightening my words.

"A gift? Let me see." She eased the box from my fingers and pried it open. Then her brow wrinkled, and she held the pieces toward me. "There's nothing inside."

I laughed a little, because I was so near to crying. "The gift is the box," I said. "But that isn't what I meant."

"Then what did he give you?" she asked.

I smiled. "A choice."


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